The Necromancer and the Dragon Priest
Lydia, down on one knee, pushed back against the crush of draugr with what little strength she had left. Then someone was helping her up by the arm, while also pushing the shield back into place next to Svari’s.
“This one can hold Lydia’s shield. Lydia should go inside.” She turned to gape at J’zargo; he looked back at her calmly as if this really were just another day’s work.
“J’zargo will slash draugr with his claws if they get too close.” He opened the shield a gap and clawed at the closest draugr to demonstrate.
“Already inside the passage. Now go.”
“J’zargo’s right, Lydia,” said Ralof. “We’ve got this.”
She turned toward the doorway to find that it was only two steps away. Would her legs carry her even that far? But now Deirdre was emerging from within. “I’ve healed Garrold as best…” she began. Then she saw Lydia, and a look of shock and concern came over her face that Lydia hoped never to see directed at herself again, not during battle.
“My love, what is it?” Deirdre said, putting an arm around her.
“Get her inside!” Ralof shouted.
Deirdre put a hand under her elbow to support her and half-dragged her into the passage. Lydia staggered a few steps beyond the doorway and fell to her hands and knees.
“Where are you hurt? I don’t see any blood.”
The sounds of the battle out in the dining hall intensified. Both J’zargo and Kharjo were hissing loudly now. The sound of claws on rock-like flesh grated on her ears. Brelyna’s lightning and fire spells lit up the chamber. “Damn these draugr, is there no end to them?”
Where was her axe? She must have dropped it, though she couldn’t imagine having done such a thing.
“I’m fine,” she told Deirdre, struggling to get up. She had to get back out there.
“I can see you’re not fine. Stay here, I’ll be right back.”
“But I must…”
“No, you mustn’t. Promise me you’ll stay here.”
Then Deirdre was gone. Lydia tried to rise, but couldn’t. She was sworn to protect Deirdre, but now she couldn’t move a limb. So much for dying at her side! She was a milk-drinker and a weakling. She felt bitter tears of shame and fear running down her cheeks and into her mouth, their salty taste an unfamiliar one.
The last ignominy came when Garrold limped over to her, recovered somewhat from his wound. “Captain Ravenwood,” he said, placing a hand on her shoulder. “Are you well? What can I do for you?” A true Nord would never cry in front of her troops, but the tears just flowed all the faster.
From the dining hall she heard Deirdre shout. “Hun-Kaal-Zoor!” She didn’t know that one. A moment later, other voices echoed from the hall. A man’s voice: “You will feel the thunder of my Thu’um!” A woman’s: “My sword will taste your blood.” And another man’s: “It’s glorious to battle once again in Tamriel!” Whoever they were, they all possessed the Thu’um. Soon Shouts were echoing around the dining hall, and even shaking the floor of the passage where she cowered.
Deirdre and her companions returned to join her in the passageway. “Ralof, Kharjo, Svari, don’t let anything through that door,” Deirdre ordered. “J’zargo, get spells off when you can.”
All her friends had retreated, yet the battle still raged. Lydia couldn’t understand it.
“Who are those ancient warriors?” Brelyna asked Deirdre. “The draugr can’t stand against them.”
“Friends from Sovngarde. But there’s no time to explain.” Deirdre knelt beside her. “Can you sit up?” Together, Deirdre and Brelyna helped Lydia over to sit with her back against the wall of the passage. “Now, what is it? I still don’t see any blood. And nothing looks broken. Here, let’s get your helmet off at least.”
Lydia kept her head down as Deirdre removed the helm.
“If I’m not mistaken,” Brelyna said, “these aren’t physical wounds.”
Lydia could only shake her head.
“What then?” said Deirdre.
Brelyna was silent for a moment, but Lydia knew she knew. “Lydia, I heard you shout about the elves, and the women and children. You were back at the Retreat from Whiterun, weren’t you?”
Lydia nodded, and gave a sob, her shoulders shaking. She’d never cried like this in her life.
“I relive that awful day every night in my dreams,” Brelyna said, shivering.
“Yet I never do,” Lydia managed to say.
“Oh, my love,” Deirdre said, placing a hand under her chin, forcing Lydia to meet her eye. She had no strength to resist. “And you never talk about that day, though I’ve asked you time and again. All you would say after you recovered was that you should have died defending Balgruuf. Oh, if only I had been there that day, and hadn’t been stuck at the top of the Throat of the World!”
Seeing Deirdre’s worried look only made her sobs come more quickly. Deirdre stroked her cheek, then gathered her in her arms, where she wept as she never had, not even as a baby.
They were right, of course. She’d taken all the fear, horror, and grief of that day and stuffed it down somewhere deep, covered it with a mask of Nord bravado. And not just Whiterun, but the suffering she’d endured in the Thalmor torture chamber. Yet all these months, fear had gripped her heart like a claw. She’d put it off as fear for Deirdre’s life, but it was her own fear she was running from, she could see that now. And how much had she lost in keeping it at bay! She hadn’t truly enjoyed any pleasure these last months, she was so constantly on edge. She couldn’t even properly make love to her wife for fear of what might happen while they were so distracted. It was no way to live.
Her weeping abated, and Deirdre looked at her once more, stroking her helmet-mashed hair. “Promise me that when we return home, we’ll talk of these things. You won’t keep them bottled up inside you.”
Lydia nodded, wiping at her eyes.
“Good. But right now, I need you to be strong.”
“We need help over here!” Ralof called from the doorway. “Your friends are saying their farewells.” He sounded stunned by the sight before him. “Felldir the Old, Gormlaith Golden-Hilt, Hakon-One-Eye, all returning to fight for us! By the Nine, I thought never to meet them unless I earned my place in Sovngarde.”
Deirdre turned back to Lydia. “You see, we can’t do without you. I can cast a spell on you, but only if you want me to. Or you can stay here with Garrold.”
“Over my dead body.” She tried to grin, but her mouth wouldn’t move that way just now.
“That’s my lass,” Deirdre said, and leaned over to kiss her. That nearly revived her by itself, but the Call to Arms spell did wonders.
She stood up, feeling renewed strength in her limbs, and renewed courage for battle. What was all that crying about, anyway? Lydia Ravenwood never cried. “This magical bravery really works,” she said, “even if it is fake.”
“No more of a fake than the usual Nord bluster,” Brelyna said rather severely. Then she clapped her on the back. “Still, it’s good to have the old Lydia Ravenwood back.”
Ralof turned as they approached the doorway. “Good to see you’re yourself again, Captain.” He bent and retrieved her axe and shield from where they were leaning against the wall. “You might be needing these.”
She took them, feeling sheepish. “It doesn’t sound so bad out there.”
“No, and we have Deirdre to thank. That Shout!” He gave a low whistle. “The ancient heroes made quick work of the ghost cultists. And even before that, those Mayhem and Hysteria spells took the pressure off while we retreated. Our lass is a wonder, but I expect you knew that.”
“I did. But I didn’t even know any of that was happening. Some hero I am.”
“Forget it. It happens to everyone, even the mightiest. I bet even Hakon and Gormlaith had their moments. You should have seen me after Falkreath.”
“Really?” she said
“Really?” Deirdre echoed.
He gave them both a wry grin. “I’ll tell you about it someday. But right now we have a murderer to catch.”
“We do. Would you mind taking the lead, General Ralof?”
“Don’t mind if I do, Captain Ravenwood, your Grace. Turns out these draugr aren’t so tough.”
J’zargo hissed to get their attention. “Enough chit-chat! This one’s magicka is running low.”
They entered the dining hall to see just a dozen or so draugr of the common variety huddling in a corner where they’d been driven first by the ancient heroes, and then by J’zargo’s flame spells, not to mention fear of Ralof’s axe, Svari’s sword, and Kharjo’s mace. Lydia was almost disappointed when the last undead warrior fell.
“Svari,” Ralof ordered, “bring Garrold along the best you can. He should be able to walk, but slowly. We’ll give chase to the mage.”
Svari looked at Lydia for confirmation, and she gave her a nod. Ralof led the way into the next passage, followed closely by Kharjo, then Brelyna and J’zargo, and finally Deirdre and Lydia. It felt strange to be bringing up the rear, but it was a day of many strange new experiences. And it gave her a chance to watch her friends as Brelyna gave J’zargo a playful punch on the arm.
“What?” said J’zargo.
Brelyna said nothing, but Lydia thought she heard her give a sniff. Was she crying? There’d already been too much crying, considering they were chasing a dangerous murderer through a Nord crypt.
Brelyna cuffed J’zargo again.
“What? Was this one not brave enough?”
“Foolish, more like,” said Brelyna, still sniffling. “But no, I was going to say, what you did for Lydia was very selfless.”
J’zargo didn’t reply with a boast. He didn’t reply at all. He was walking in front of Lydia, but to the right, so she had a good look at his face as he looked over at Brelyna. He wasn’t even gloating, just gazing at her with love and contentment. Lydia raised an eyebrow at Deirdre, who returned a wink.
“Damnit, J’zargo,” Brelyna said, “you’re going to make me love you after all.” She gave him another punch, and he put an arm around her shoulders. She settled her head on J’zargo’s shoulder and they walked that way for a while. It was a lovely moment, Lydia thought.
But then again, teasing J’zargo was just too tempting. “Ah, a Khajiit in love. It warms this one’s heart.”
“Pffft!” he hissed.
Feeling a bit remorseful, she caught up to him and put an arm around his shoulders. “But kidding aside, that was brave of you. I owe you my life.” She dipped her head. “Thank you. And Brelyna is lucky to have you.” J’zargo gave a little purr. “Now, don’t go getting a big head. You’re clearly the one trading up in this scenario.” She winked at Brelyna.
J’zargo just gave her a pointy-toothed grin and slipped an arm around her waist. “Yes, this is what J’zargo likes, to walk with a female on either side.” He gave a lascivious purr. Both of the females in question laughed, and neither smacked him.
“By the Nine,” said Deirdre from behind them, “that’s a sight I thought never to see.”
Up ahead, Kharjo turned to Ralof. “Tell me, general, are all Nord expeditions like this one?”
Ralof pondered for a moment. “To tell you the truth, Kharjo, I fear we may have fallen into the Realm of Sheogorath. Otherwise, I can’t explain any of this.”
“Ah, that is what Kharjo suspected.”
Ralof halted, listening. “But we’d better come back to Nirn. I think that’s the mage we’re hearing.”
Over the cleared throats, nervous tittering, and exclamations of “Yes, general!” that followed Ralof’s request, they could hear the mage swearing. “Damn this door, and damn these foolish Nordic engravings! What is that anyway? A dog? A wolf? A squirrel? Ah, yes, a fox. And now an owl and a snake.”
They heard the sound of stone grating over stone. “He’s opening the door to Rahgot’s tomb!” Deirdre yelled, dashing past her friends and around the corner.
“Hey, wait for us!” Lydia called, running after her, the rest following behind.
Turning the corner, she saw they were nearly too late. The door, a set of three overlapping stone disks, had already sunk halfway into the floor. The mage still had four draugr with him, and these he sent charging straight at Deirdre. Then he turned and leapt over the half-open door and disappeared beyond.
“Wuld-Nah-Kest!” Deirdre shouted, shooting past the surprised draugr, who barely managed to sidestep her in their surprise, and all the way through the door, where she was lost from sight.
Damn her recklessness! “After her!” Lydia shouted.
“Leave the draugr to J’zargo and me,” said Brelyna, summoning a flame atronach. “You three follow Deirdre.”
Lydia didn’t need to be told twice. She dashed at the draugr, shoving two aside with her axe, as Ralof did the same with the others. Kharjo passed them both, despite his steel armor. They reached the end of the hall at last and plunged through the doorway. Beyond, they found Deirdre alone at the bottom of a staircase, panting hard, standing over a pile of ash. “He… summoned… a dremora.”
“My queen,” Lydia said, stamping her foot. “You could have been killed.”
Deirdre grinned. “Feh, only a lesser daedra.”
“Now, where’s this murderer?” Kharjo demanded, dashing up the steps. The rest followed, but Kharjo pulled farther ahead. Before they were halfway up, Lydia heard the distinctive thunk of a tomb cracking open. Reaching the top of the stairs, they saw Damien preparing to cast a spell, standing next to a large sarcophagus with its lid thrown back. A dragon priest was rising before him, floating in the air, its grinning skull made yet grimmer by a heavy verdigris mask.
Damien cast his spell, but gasped when it had no effect. He took a step backward, but too late. Rahgot slashed at his belly with the hooked end of his staff just as Kharjo reached the altar and leapt at the Breton. There was a flash and the two rolled together in a crumpled ball surrounded by blue light, coming to rest against the far wall.
Reaching the altar, Deirdre shouted Marked for Death at Rahgot, and Lydia came in behind with a blow from her axe. The Shout should have weakened him, but the dragon priest hardly seemed to feel the blow. He veered away, hovering on one side of the sanctuary. That was the worst thing about these dragon priests. If they would only hold still!
“Hold him off while I check on Kharjo and Damien,” Deirdre said. “We can’t let him poison himself like the cultists!”
“Aye, my Queen.” Lydia stepped back from the wall of lightning Rahgot was spreading on the floor with his staff. Ralof got him from the other side with his axe, but again with little effect. The dragon priest’s thick metal breast plate offered sure protection.
Four more cracking sounds came from all around them and four deathlords stepped out of their upright sarcophagi. “Is this all you’ve got?” Lydia laughed grimly, turning to face the nearest deathlord. Rahgot replied with his own dry cackle. Where was Deirdre? How was Kharjo? Lydia just knew she and Ralof could use some help.
Then Deirdre was at their side. “Kharjo’s all right. He’ll try to keep Damien alive.”
“We could use some help with these deathlords, not to mention the damned dragon priest.” She blocked a blow from the deathlord.
“I’ll take care of these two.” Deirdre cast a spell of frenzy at the two deathlords opposite, and they fell to fighting one another.
Now Brelyna and J’zargo came running up the steps and engaged the fourth deathlord, Brelyna casting another flame atronach. Ralof went to help them.
Now this was fighting! Slicing, spinning, blocking, slashing again, standing aside just in time to let Deirdre’s spell find its target, then going in for the kill. There, one deathlord down. Much better than cowering behind a shield wall. She looked over at Deirdre and saw that she felt it too, her eyes alight with concentration, something like a smile on her lips. This is what they were made for, to roam Skyrim together, not to live pent up in a castle drilling soldiers or going over ledgers. It was easy to see that Deirdre felt more alive than at any time during these past months in Castle Dour. And Lydia felt nearly the same, save for the shadow of what had happened back in the dining hall, and the strange feeling of Deirdre’s magic still working on her.
Then a hiss came from behind them, and the smell of singed fur filled the chamber.
“Damnit,” said Brelyna, “the dragon priest turned my atronach.”
“Let’s get him!” Deirdre said, and Lydia turned toward the dragon priest. “Fus-Ro-Dah!” Deirdre shouted, smashing Rahgot into the back wall of the crypt. Lydia followed up with a blow from her axe. Deirdre hit him with an ice spike. That ought to slow him down. Lydia hit him again.
Now Rahgot was up, and zooming to the other side of the chamber. He summoned his own flame atronach, which aimed fireballs at them. Deirdre cast a ward with one hand and gave Lydia a potion of fire resistance with the other.
“Two can play that game,” Brelyna shouted. She cast a spell at the atronach, and now it was turning on Rahgot, enveloping him in flame. “But we could use some help over here!”
“Go,” said Deirdre.
“But my Queen…”
“I’ve got this.” Deirdre cast a spell of incinerate at Rahgot.
Lydia raced over to help her three friends, who were now battling two deathlords at once. She took a swing at the one who looked the weakest, and he went to one knee. Ralof finished him with a mighty blow of his own axe. Together the four of them made quick work of the last deathlord. He tried Shouting “Fus!” at them, but he was so weak that it had little effect. He fell to the floor with a final groan and the four turned to help Deirdre.
But she needed little help. A final Shout drove Rahgot to his knees, and Deirdre went in with her sword for the killing blow. As did all Dragon Priests, he dissolved into a pile of ash.
Deirdre didn’t stop to loot the ash pile for gems or Rahgot’s magical mask. “Let’s see to Damien.”
It was as bad as Lydia had feared. Rahgot’s staff had opened Damien’s belly, and now the poor fellow was trying to keep his insides on the inside, but failing terribly. Kharjo had caught part of the blow on his arm, or it might have been worse. The stench was awful, but one to which Lydia had become accustomed, along with the desperate look on the mage’s face, common to all those who felt the life leaking out of them, with no way of keeping it in. It was a good thing Kharjo had smashed all the Breton’s vials of poison, now lying in shards nearby.
Still the mage had hope. “Heal me, and I’ll tell you everything,” he said to Deirdre.
“Alas, my most powerful healing spell will do no good with such a wound. I can do something for the pain, however.” She reached in her cloak for a potion, but Lydia restrained her with a hand on her arm.
She knelt next to the Breton, showing him the sharp blade of her axe. “Soldiers moan for days on the battlefield with wounds such as yours. It’s not long before they’re begging for someone, anyone, to give them a quick death. I can give you that, if you talk. Or, we’ll leave you here, just as you are, and you can hope the draugr wake up again and finish you off.”
“Lydia,” Deirdre said, but Lydia gave her a sharp look.
“Sometimes you’re too kind-hearted, my love.”
They waited a moment longer while Damien pondered his fate. Deirdre took the opportunity to heal Kharjo’s wounded arm. Svari and Garrold came up just as she was finishing. “I’m glad you’re here,” she said. “You’ll be the most impartial witness to the Breton’s confession.”
Lydia turned to the necromancer. “Well?”
“All right, I’ll talk,” he said through clenched teeth. “You were right, of course. The Thalmor hired me. Murder a few citizens, mostly Nords, put the blame on the Khajiits. Stir up trouble, set the Nords against the minority.” He paused to wince. “Then of course kind-hearted Deirdre Morningsong would have to step in… defy the will of the people… trample the rights and duties of the jarls… all to protect the poor, oppressed Khajiits.” He tried to laugh, but only groaned. “A right little rebellion you’ve got on your hands now, I’ll wager. My work here is done. Too bad I couldn’t make it back home.”
“And the Khajiits you enthralled?” Deirdre asked. “Where did you find them? What are their names?”
“None of your concern. They came from outside Skyrim. I nabbed them in Jehanna just before crossing the border. Wanted them to be nice and fresh. As to names, I didn’t ask.”
“What do the Thalmor intend now? Do they mean to attack us while we’re at each other’s throats?”
“You think they tell me such things? No, I’m just a lowly assassin. But it stands to reason, a divided Skyrim works in their favor. If they can get you out of the picture, half their work will be done. Now, I’ve told you all. You must fulfill your end of the bargain.”
“No, one more thing. It’s been nettling me for weeks now. Why the poison? Why not just let your thralls commit the murders?”
Damien smiled, though it clearly pained him. “You detected my poisons, but you couldn’t figure out why I used them? I’m surprised.” He grimaced, and went on. “Sometimes I didn’t want the neighbors hearing any screams. And in Dragon Bridge… didn’t want to waste a good thrall. Attacking a whole family? Too much could go wrong. I knew Amaund Jurard always wore a knife. Needed to slow him down. But then the children died… before my Khajiit could get to them.”
Lydia had heard enough of this. He sounded so nonchalant about it, as if talking about livestock he’d slaughtered. “And then you had him rend their bodies anyway. What kind of monster are you?”
“One with a mission to carry out. The Khajiit had to be blamed for all of it.”
“I’m regretting my promise of a quick death.”
Deirdre placed a hand on her arm. “Lydia, we can’t make monsters of ourselves. He’s kept his promise and told us everything we need to know.” She looked to the two guards. “You heard all? You must be our witnesses.” The guards both nodded. She turned back to Lydia. “You know what you must do.”
Lydia nodded, though she knew it was more than this monster deserved.
She stood up and gestured for the others to turn away if they wished. The Breton stretched out his neck to give her a better target.
It was over quickly. She did not look away.
Lydia Ravenwood never looked away.